Vincenzo Lancia (1881 - 1937)

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Vincenzo Lancia

Vincenzo Lancia
Vincenzo Lancia


Lancias have always surprised people, but never more than in 1951 when a stock-bodied Lancia Aurelia won its class in the Mille Miglia road race, finishing second overall behind a mighty 4.1 Ferrari. The next season was even more incredible, with more of the dumpy Aurelia tourers winning the 2-litre class at the 1952 Le Mans, finished third overall in the Mille Miglia, scored 1, 2 and 3 in the Targa Florio, and came home fourth in the fantastically-tough Panamerican event.

In 1953 Lancia's 3 and 3.1-litre sports and coupe models again scored well, including another third overall in the Mille Miglia, first in the Targa Florio, and 1, 2 and 3 in the Panamerican. Enlarged to 3.3-litres for '54, the competition models won both the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio, while an Aurelia won the Monte Carlo Rally. There were other important victories - many others - during those few years when Lancia officially went racing.

The Scuderia's drivers included such greats as Fangio, Ascari, Castellotti, Taruffi, Maglioli and Villoresi. When Lancia went racing, it did so with marked success. Yet, apart from its interest in the early 1950s, the firm paid little attention to competition before or since. This is all the more puzzling because many earlier models had had obvious sporting potential and the co-founder of the firm, Vincenzo Lancia, had been a well-known driver in the Fiat works racing team during the early 1900s.

A Brilliant Designer and Engineer

Born in 1881, Vincenzo Lancia may have become the accountant his father intended had not part of the family's premises in Turin been rented to a bicycle repairman named Giovanni Ceirano. Ceirano started making light cars known as Welleyes. These machines so fascinated the young Lancia that his father ultimately agreed he could work for Ceirano - as an accountant. Books, however, were only a stepping stone for Vincenzo in the automobile industry. Three years later, in 1900, Ceirano's business was taken over by the then year-old Fiat.

Claudio Fogolin

Although scarcely 20, Vincenzo Lancia had already established a reputation as a brilliant designer and engineer. He became chief inspector at Fiat's new division and was chosen to drive for the newly-formed Fiat racing team. Here, too, Lancia showed above-average skill and probably could have made a successful career of racing. But more interested in building cars than racing them, he formed a partnership with another Fiat test driver, Claudio Fogolin. The firm, registered as Lancia & Co, was officially born in November, 1906, with Vincenzo in charge of engineering and production and Claudio for sales.

A few months later a disastrous fire almost ruined the business - destroying plans, patterns and parts of the first prototype vehicle which was then already well under way. Less-determined individuals might have abandoned the idea then and there, but Vincenzo immediately started repairing and replacing the damaged material. By September, 1907, the prototype, without body, was ready to start trials. These were delayed only momentarily because the workshop door was too narrow for the car to pass through. Some enthusiastic and spontaneous demolition work on the wall soon solved the problem.

The Lancia 18/24 Alpha

Even this, the first Lancia, was quite advanced for its day. The four-cylinder side-valve engine developed 14.5 bhp at 1450 rpm - daringly high engine speed in that era. The chassis was comparatively low and light, featuring shaft drive to the rear wheels instead of the more common chain drive. Towards the end of 1907 two more prototypes had been built and the firm was ready to start full-scale production. Originally designated the 18/24, the first production model was renamed the "Alpha", thus initiating the Lancia tradition of naming cars by letters of the Greek alphabet. This practice was stopped in 1931 though is still used for Lancia commercial vehicles.

Lancia Lambda
The Lambda may have been Lancia's one and only pre-war sports car, but it is better known for being the first car manufactured from unitary body/chassis construction.

Lancia Lambda
The Lambda was launched at the Paris and London car shows of 1922, and then produced in no fewer than nine series until 1931.

Vincenzo Lancia
Speculation abounds as to how Vincenzo Lancia came up with the concept of building a car from a unitary body/chassis. The most popular theory is that his inspiration came from boat manufacture, following his taking a holiday cruise.

Lancia Aprilia
Vincenzo Lancia would pass away in 1937 at the relatively early age of only 56, but he would leave behind him the legacy of a very advanced small saloon model, the “Aprilia”.

Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
The 1950 Lancia Aurelia B50 was the evolution of Vincenzo's legacy, the wonderful B10.

Lancia Fulvia
With a body by Zegato, the Lancia Fulvia Coupes turned out to be stellar rally cars.

Lancia Stratos
Gianpaolo Dallara's masterpiece, the Stratos is etched into rally history.

Lancia Delta S4
Lancia would remain committed to WRC, although designing something as innovative as the Stratos was always going to be difficult. The Delta S4 would quickly silence the critics.

The Six Cylinder Lancia Dialfa

As sold, the Alpha had a dual-block four-cylin-der engine of 2543cc developing 28 bhp at 1800 rpm, and featured a high tension magneto, four-speed gearbox and shaft drive. Maximum speed was over 55 mph. Despite some criticism that the car was too low, too light and too fast, the Alpha sold well - 108 cars delivered in a little over a year. The following "Dialfa" model had six cylinders, one of the first such engines produced. Capacity was 3815 cc and the Lancia was able to reach almost 70 mph - only slightly short of the world record. Unfortunately, the public was not ready for such spirited motoring and the Dialfa failed commercially.

The Lancia Gamma, Delta, Didelta, Epsilon and Eta

In 1909 another four-cylinder model was introduced, this with 3120cc capacity and featuring a one-piece engine block. Next, in 1910, came the "Gamma", using a similar engine with volume increased to 3460 cc. About 250 of the Gamma were produced and Lancia & Co had to expand its facilities by moving to larger premises. Next introduced were the "Delta", "Didelta", "Epsilon" and "Eta" models, with four-cylinder engines ranging from 4080cc to 5030cc. Only a few examples of the Didelta were produced, but over 1100 of the others were sold in 1911 and 1912.

The Lancia Theta, the V8 and V12

The very successful "Theta" arrived in 1913. One of the main reasons for its immediate acceptance was that it, first in Europe, had a specifically designed and integral electrical system for ignition, generator and starting. Almost 1700 of this model were produced. On June 5, 1915, a few days after Italy entered World War 1, Lancia patented an advanced design for a V8 engine - following it, in 1918, with a V12. The V12 prototype was built in 1919. With cylinder banks disposed at 20 degrees, it was the first Lancia engine to feature single overhead camshafts. Of 7837cc capacity, the V12 developed 120 bhp at 2200 rpm. Although it attracted widespread interest, the engine was not produced in quantity.

The Lancia Kappa and Dikappa

Mainstay of the firm was the "Kappa", derived from the earlier Theta. Features included a 70 bhp engine, 75 mph maximum speed, steering column adjustable for rake, electric starting controlled by a foot-operated switch, and gear lever situated at the centre of the car instead of outside the body as on former models. The "Dikappa" of 1921 was considered a high-performance model. It employed the Kappa engine, but with overhead valves, and developed 87 bhp. Maximum speed was over 80mph. Next came the "Trikappa", Lancia's first production V8, boasting 4594 cc and 98 bhp.

The Lancia Lambda

While the Trikappa continued successfully into 1922, Vincenzo Lancia was already preparing a design that was to shake the motoring world to its foundations. Almost everything about the vehicle was radically advanced - from its chassisless unit-construction, independent front suspension, high-revving sohc V4 engine and hydraulic dampers to its exceptionally light (under 14 cwt) weight and low, rakish styling. It was, of course, the legendary Lambda. More than 13,000 of these were produced between 1922 and 1930, and it is a model much coveted by vintage-car enthusiasts. In all, nine series of Lambda were built. Wheelbases were 122 or 135 in. long according to the series concerned, and three engines were used - 2170cc 13 degree V4 developing 49 bhp at 3250 rpm; 2370cc 14-degree V4 developing 59 bhp at 3250 rpm; and finally the Type 79 V4 with 13-degree disposition and 69 bhp at 3500 rpm.

Whereas the first series Lambda was capable of just over 70 mph, the last series could reach almost 80 mph. The Lambda was immeasurably ahead of its contemporaries - so much so that it gained an indelible reputation as a sporting machine although it was primarily a comfortable fourseater tourer. Proof of the Lambda's performance came in the 1928 Mille Miglia. About 150 miles from home a Lambda was holding a seemingly-assured second place behind a supercharged Alfa Romeo. Had not an accident caused its retirement, the Lancia could have perhaps won the gruelling 1000-mile classic because the Alfa was due for a pit-stop and required refuelling.

The Lancia Dilambda, Artena and Astura

By 1928 custom-built bodies were all the rage. The Lambda was unsuitable due to its unit-built chassis/body, so Lancia introduced the "Dilambda" with separate chassis (retaining features such as independent front suspension) and 3960 cc V8 developing 100 bhp at 4000 rpm. An expensive vehicle, the Dilambda nevertheless sold well - about 1700 units built between 1929 and 1932. Meanwhile, Lancia introduced two models powered by pushrod ohv engines, the 2-litre V4 Artena and 2.6-litre V8 Astura. At this point Lancia dropped its alphabetical designation for cars, instead naming them after towns and famous roads of old Italy. The Astura, in particular, became a favorite engine/chassis combination for Italy's specialist body-builders.

The Lancia Augusta

As always, Vincenzo seemed to have something new on the drawing board. Came 1933 and the comparatively small (1194 cc) V4 Augusta. This was another revolutionary car - with unit-built four-door sedan body, the first ever of this type. It also introduced pillarless construction, having front doors hinged at their leading edge and rear doors swinging on their trailing edge. Other innovations included flexible couplings instead of universal joints on the drive shaft, and hydraulic brakes. Interestingly the hydraulic brakes (British design) were almost rejected due to excessive fade.

Vincenzo Lancia himself made exhaustive tests on the brakes, first replacing the specified cast iron drums with others having iron liners in finned aluminium drums. These gave good results, but not good enough for Lancia. The fate of the brakes was in the balance when it was decided to try the aluminium drums with rough cast outer surface (instead of machining them to a smooth, polished finish) painted matt black. Tests showed heat dissipation was greatly improved, so the system was finally approved. So as not to prohibit the Augusta from special body builders, Lancia designed and built it in limited numbers, with a pressed steel platform type chassis to which the body could be bolted. This method was adopted by Volkswagen.

The Lancia Aprilla - Vincenzo's Last

Ever creative, Lancia realised the excellent sales potential for a light five-seater with above average performance. And so the Aprilia was born. This had a new 1351cc V4 with pushrod operated overhead valves in semi-hemispherical chambers. Result - 48 bhp at 4300 rpm. With unit-built body and remarkable aerodynamic styling, possessing independent suspension on all wheels and inboard rear brakes, the 11 cwt prototype reached over 80 mph. This velocity, however, was thought excessive and modifications were made to reduce speed of production models by about 5 mph. Also produced with separate chassis for special bodies, the Aprilia dominated 1500cc sports car races in the hands of private owners. In 1939 the engine was enlarged to 1486 cc. Power output remained but torque was significantly increased, further improving acceleration and flexibility.

Success of the Aprilia can be judged from the fact that although introduced in 1937, it remained in production until late 1949. Vincenzo Lancia, unfortunately, did not see the Aprilia beyond the prototype stage. He died suddenly on February 15, 1937, and the world lost a brilliant designer and engineer. But more than that, Lancia had a rare and intense affection for cars and for the men who built them. Few other manufacturers, perhaps only Bugatti, won such loyalty from employees. And Lancia always managed to make time to personally inspect and drive the prototypes.

Just before World War 2, Lancia & Co built a foundry and engineering plant at Bolzano, outside Turin. At the outbreak of war, and after bombings of Turin, the firm moved virtually its whole operation to Bolzano. All output was directed to the war effort, but apparently not without general ill-feeling. On several occasions Lancia personnel were arrested, and some shot for resisting German authority. On the last days of the war, in Bolzano district, a shoot-out between employees and soldiers cost the lives of two Lancia men, plus another who was executed in the factory itself as an act of reprisal.

The Post War Lancia Ardea

When peace was restored and the factory operational again, it fell to the Ardea (introduced in 1939) to help get the firm back on its feet. As before, the post-war Ardea was a small light vehicle powered by a 903cc V4 developing 28 bhp at 4600 rpm, with maximum speed of 65-70 mph. Minor changes were made to the unit-built body and, in 1946, a fifth (overdrive) ratio was added to the gearbox. In 1949 engine output was boosted to 30 bhp at 4600 rpm by means of an aluminium cylinder head, increased compression and different carburettor. All told, over 30,000 Ardeas were produced.

Gianni Lancia and the Lancia B10

During the mid-1940s the Aprilia continued virtually unchanged as Lancia's medium-size model. By 1947, though an experimental Aprilia was undergoing tests with a 45-degree V6 of 1569cc. Results were promising but, in 1948, Vincenzo's son Gianni Lancia, then general manager, decided it would be better to build an entirely new model rather than persevere with the old. Another 1569cc V6 engine was built, with 50-degree disposition, and the whole car began to take shape on the drawing board. Designated the B10, it had longer wheelbase than the Aprilia, featured Lancia's traditional vertical pillar independent front suspension, and introduced independent rear suspension by means of angled trailing arms and coil springs - similar in effect to that used on the Triumph 2000, Hillman Imp and BMW 1800.

The Lancia Aurelia

A radical innovation was the use of a rear-mounted assembly incorporating the clutch, gearbox, final drive and inboard brakes. In final form the B10 engine had its banks of cylinders at 60-degrees, displaced 1754cc and developed 56 bhp at 4000 rpm. The new car was introduced in 1950 as the Aurelia - a car that established fresh standards of quality and performance and was responsible for creating the Grand Touring category. Bodied by Pininfarina, the GT coupe was a worthy originator of the term. Its engine was taken to 1991cc and 80 bhp, giving maximum speed of 105 mph. The Aurelia sedan also got this engine, though with 70 bhp. Later the GT version was increased to 2451cc and 115 bhp while the sedan went to 2266 cc and 85 bhp. Apart from changes in capacity and power, the only major mechanical difference between early and late models was that the latter received a de Dion axle and semi elliptic springs.

The Lancia Family Lose Control

About this time, under the direction of Gianni Lancia, the firm started on an ambitious racing program which, although they scored well and often in GT and sports events, could not be afforded. The final straw was the potentially great Formula One 2.5-litre single-seater designed by Vittorio Jano. A wicked-looking machine with saddle-mounted fuel tanks, the F1 car was turned over to Scuderia Ferrari when, due to financial crisis, the company withdrew from racing and the Lancia family lost control of the firm. Re-organised, Lancia & Co introduced the Flaminia in 1956. This broke with tradition in having conventional wishbone/coil spring independent front suspension, though retained the V6 engine and rear-mounted transmission/final drive assembly with de Dion axle.

Like most Lancias, the Flaminia became a favorite for Italy's special body builders and many beautiful derivations have come from Pininfarina, Zagato, Touring and Vignale. It was confirmed, in 1960, that none of the company spirit and individuality had been lost in the change of management. The Flavia's flat-four 1.5-litre engine and front wheel drive were just as advanced and yet as typically Lancia as features found on famous earlier models. The Flavia, too, was enthusiastically received by the body builders. Pininfarina's coupe version, in particular, being one of the most attractive cars ever. Immaculately built, it possessed effortless Grand Touring performance, able to cruise in the high 80s - or even the 90s where the later 1.8-litre model is concerned.

The Lancia Fulvia

Then came the boxy little Fulvia, generally regarded as the world's finest small sedan. First produced with 1091 cc ohc V4 developing 60 bhp, the Fulvia has since become the 2C - wearing two twin-throat Solex carburettors and developing 71 bhp. Although it has grown considerably during the '60s, Lancia & Co has had its problems. Worst of these was in 1964 When the Italian government imposed drastically heavy sales tax on new cars. That was bad enough for a firm as comparatively small as Lancia, especially as they built only expensive quality cars, but the situation deteriorated further when it was announced the additional tax was only temporary.

Potential buyers, who had resigned themselves to paying the extra money, promptly sat tight and waited for the tax to be withdrawn. Until that occurred all Italian car manufacturers had a very lean time. As soon as the public began buying again, Lancia bounced back with renewed vigor, releasing the very pretty little Fulvia coupe. Unlike previous special models, the coupe was both designed and produced by the parent firm. Engine capacity was increased to 1216cc and bhp to 80. The story does not end there, or course, but by then the Lancia family had long departed. The links below will continue the Lancia story.

Also see: Lancia Heritage | Lancia Car Reviews | The History of Lancia (USA Edition) | Vincenzo Lancia - Legends of Motorsport (USA Edition)
Vincenzo Lancia
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